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Kashmir voters fear attack in third round of polls
( 2002-10-01 11:46 ) (7 )

Voters go to the polls in disputed Kashmir on Tuesday in the third round of a state election overshadowed by fear of attacks by separatist Islamic militants who have pledged to derail the vote.

Voting was to be held in some of the most volatile areas of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, in what officials have said could be the most violent of the four-round election which ends on October 8.

Some villagers said they would not vote, more interested in the rice harvest underway than risking their lives in a poll likely to re-elect the ruling National Conference, which has disappointed many Kashmiris in its last six years in power.

The Election Commission said all of the 2,045 polling booths open on Tuesday had been classed as "sensitive" or "hypersensitive" because of the risk of militant attacks.

India sees the poll as a means of easing a 13-year-old revolt against its rule, by electing a new government with which it could hold talks on giving greater autonomy to the state.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Monday hailed the election -- which achieved a turnout of more than 40 percent the first two rounds -- as a turning point on the road to peace.

Islamabad has dismissed the vote as a farce, saying it is no substitute for a plebiscite to let the people of Kashmir decide whether they want to belong to Islamic Pakistan or secular but mostly Hindu India.

Moderate separatists are not contesting the election and have urged voters to boycott the poll. Militants have targeted candidates and political workers to disrupt the election.

Almost 600 people, including a state minister and more than 30 political activists, have been killed since the poll was announced in early August.

Even the fear of militants could deter voters in the third round of voting around the towns of Anantnag and Pulwama in southern Kashmir, traditional centres of separatist militancy, officials say.

"There are some apprehensions voiced by various quarters about the possibility of violence," the state's chief electoral officer Pramod Jain said.

"Adequate forces are being deployed which are both visible and dominating," he told reporters.

In the run-up to voting there were only minor incidents of violence, however. Polling booths were due to open from 7 a.m. (0130 GMT) to 4 p.m. (1030 GMT).

The Kashmir dispute is at the heart of a nine-month military standoff between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, who came to the brink of a fourth war in June.

India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring militants fighting New Delhi's rule in Kashmir, a charge Islamabad denies.



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